Did you hear the one about the Sunni teacher and the Shia student?

He showed me that sectarianism is blind arrogance, bathing in the sewers of society.

He showed me that sectarianism is blind arrogance, bathing in the sewers of society.

“Do you want a beating Jafar?” growled our madrassa teacher, raising his metre ruler in the air above his head.

“No sir,” came the reply from a rather sullen faced boy.

“Then stop talking and start reading,” barked the Sith lord in a salwar.

Now, for those of us who have grown up in ethnic households, the threat of violence to force obedience isn’t exactly breaking news to us. However, it does highlight an incredible irony where we send our children to learn about a religion that embodies values such as forgiveness, compassion and peace but teaches them using fear, humiliation and blackmail. If we’re constantly being reminded that we’re better than animals, then why are we taught this using a carrot and stick approach?

It’s probably unsurprising to hear that I didn’t attend madrassa for very long and soon enough, my mother began toying with the idea of getting somebody to home-school us with regards to our Islamic education. She found someone, a Sunni Imam, who had been recommended by a family friend. When asked why she chose a Sunni Imam to teach her Shia children about Islam, my mother’s reply was interesting. Differences in Islamic jurisprudence and history were irrelevant with respect to teaching children Qur’an, and if there was theological, jurisprudential or historical discussion then any discrepancy was to be considered beneficial in shaping and cementing our understanding of our faith. It was also designed to allow us to respect plurality of opinion in religious discourse instead of developing intolerance.

So here we are, years later, having completed the Qur’an, been taught how to pray in accordance with Shia jurisprudence and gained a grounding in Islam from which to springboard into furthering this education. Whilst I’ll always be grateful to my teacher for laying the foundations of my Islamic education, I’m indebted to him for his example – which taught me about humanity.

He showed me that sectarianism is blind arrogance, bathing in the sewers of society. His enthusiasm taught me that Islam is the river, with Shia and Sunni as its tributaries. His discussions with me (ranging from topics such as the afterlife to those regarding the problems within Pakistani cricket) displayed an open-mindedness that shows religious education succeeds by setting examples rather than demanding obedience.

When a child is inspired by a person, they seek that person’s blueprint for life, which is precisely when you gift that child with religion.

Detractors often criticise Islam as a religion that was spread by the sword, but the reality is that one man did not attract his first followers by his fearsome reputation as a warrior. Rather, it was by his upright nature as a merchant, and then the nature of the message he carried – one that encompassed a movement towards establishing social justice, through the abolition of slavery, racism and misogyny.

How we treat others is the greatest testament to faith there is. My Sunni Imam gave me faith in Islam, but more importantly he gave me faith in humankind. Our humanity is a child blowing on a dandelion without thought or understanding, but the wonder within the child is the wonder within us, and there’s no limit to the good we are capable of when human hearts connect.

It’s the meaning of the word God.

We are one.


by Zain Rizvi